From perennial relegation candidates teetering on the brink of financial ruin to a powerhouse of European football, Manchester City’s ascent has been the product of Middle Eastern money and unmatched ambition from Sheikh Mansour.
A little over a decade ago the former Prime Minister of Thailand, Thaksin Shinawatra, was just another billionaire seeking the greatest plaything of the impossibly rich – ownership of a European football team.
Having been rebuffed by Liverpool and Fulham, Shinawatra turned his attention to Manchester City, eventually purchasing the club for £81.6 million (or, for perspective, a little under the cost of two John Stones).
Manchester City had languished in the lower echelons of the Premier League, teetering precariously around the relegation zone and looking to the likes of Georgios Samaras and Joey Barton to provide inspiration.
The club were perennial relegation candidates, a side that aimed for and often fell short of mediocrity.
Shinawatra was determined to change all of that.
That a figure such as Shinawatra could have gained ownership of an English football club, however, is a distasteful reminder of the amorality of the modern game.
As well as being investigated for corruption at the time of the purchase, Shinawatra had also been condemned for alleged crimes against humanity in relation to his ‘War on Drugs’ campaign which resulted in the deaths of thousands of Thai nationals, many of whom were proven to have been innocent of any involvement in the drug trade.
And all the while, as Shinawatra negotiated the purchase of Manchester City, his assets were being frozen in Thailand as the corruption investigation developed. He lived in self-imposed exile in Britain, safe for the time being from the prosecutors waiting for him back home.
Whatever due diligence was involved in the Premier League’s vetting of this prospective buyer, the dual threats of bankruptcy (on account of his frozen assets) and abdication (on account of a potential jail term) failed to scupper the deal.
Shinawatra got his plaything and Manchester City fell under the control of a dubious billionaire.
To the Manchester City fans, starved of success for so long, the shady background of their new owner would prove of little concern, particularly after the club installed Sven Goran Eriksson as manager and promptly set about spending £45 million on a shopping spree that included Elano, Vedran Corluka and Rolando Bianchi.
The club were showing greater ambition than they had ever done in the Premier League era and, although imperceptibly at first, the foundations of a super club began to form.
Of course, it proved to be something of a false dawn. Manchester City started the season well, twice beating arch-rivals Manchester United.
But their campaign quickly unravelled, consigning the Sky Blues to ninth in the table, albeit with their highest points total in Premier League history.
Shinawatra’s ambition upon buying the club had been to transform Manchester City into one of European football’s elite clubs, a club that could compete for domestic and European honours by buying the best footballers in the world.
But by the summer of 2008, his financial situation had become desperate. His assets remained frozen by the new Thai government and he showed little interest in returning to face the charges before him and to clear his name.
It was reported at the time that in a particularly sticky spot, Shinawatra appealed to the club chairman for a £2 million loan and was refused.
With an inability to spend, Shinawatra’s popularity with the City faithful began to dwindle and would evaporate completely upon the sacking of Sven Goran Eriksson and his replacement with Mark Hughes.
Forced to confront his failed dreams of glory and to sell the club, Shinawatra would inadvertently steer the club towards incredible wealth and unfettered success.
And just before he did leave Manchester, he made one more significant contribution towards Manchester City’s destiny – the signing of a young Belgian centre-back from Hamburg SV who would go on to lift the Premier League trophy four years later.
Shinawatra’s reign, however tumultuous, had given City fans a brief glimpse of what their club could be. New signings had poured in and the ambition of the project had been irresistible.
But now Manchester City faced yet another period of uncertainty as their club again returned to the shop window.
For fans that had grown accustomed to disappointment and the false promises of new owners, things could always get worse.
Or so experience had led them to believe.
For decades previous, Manchester City had suffered their fair share of agony, alternating between divisions in a whirlwind of relegations and promotions that at its worst saw City playing in the third tier of English football.
For many fans, the disenchantment of the Peter Swales era of ownership was still fresh in their minds – a 20 year stretch of abject failure.
Not even the most optimistic Citizen could have predicted the powerhouse their club would soon become.
To a shrewd businessperson, however, Manchester City Football Club represented an appealing investment opportunity. For one thing, they had secured favourable terms with the city council in order to make the 48,000 capacity City of Manchester Stadium their home.
What’s more, in a city obsessed with football, there were more than enough eager punters around to pack its stands on a weekly basis.
On September 1, 2008, an investment group from the United Arab Emirates, spearheaded by a member of that countries royal family – Sheikh Mansour, purchased the club for a fee of around £210 million.
Mansour’s personal wealth ran into the tens of billions of pounds due in part to his control of vast oil reserves in the UAE and numerous other investments, including a stake in Virgin Galactic and Sky News Arabia.
In the months that followed, Mansour would provide over £120 million to new manager Mark Hughes as the club sought to radically transform Manchester City’s squad.
On the same day that Mansour purchased the club, as if in a show of defiance, the board announced the signing of Robinho from Real Madrid in a deal worth £32.5 million, instantly becoming the club’s record purchase.
Craig Bellamy, Nigel De Jong and Wayne Bridge were among other new arrivals that summer in a £127 million show of strength by the new owners.
And so began the money era at Manchester City.
In their second season in charge, the Abu Dhabi Group would spend another £120 million in pursuit of domestic dominance. And of the next crop of signings one, in particular, tended to symbolise the new order of things.
Carlos Tevez, having spent a fruitful two years with cross-town rivals Manchester United, opted to sign for Manchester City on a five-year contract, much to the mortification of the Old Trafford outfit.
City further inflamed their rivals bitterness when they erected a massive billboard in the City of their new acquisition, arms outstretched and decked out in Sky Blue, which simply read “Welcome to Manchester”.
The billboard was designed on the one hand to publicise the arrival of a global megastar, but more importantly the arrival of Manchester City as the new force in town.
Defeating Manchester United in the transfer market would prove to be the first step in defeating them on the pitch.
To date, Mansour and his investment group have spent over £1 billion on players alone, not to mention the manifold other investments including, but not limited to, a £200 million state of the art academy and a £20 million college and community sports centre, all of which has had the desired effect of both modernising the club to the highest standard and also of ingratiating a certain part of Manchester to their new owners.
Another £1 billion has been invested in the city itself, mainly in property and higher education facilities.
There was no facet of the football club that went unchanged under their ambitious new owners.
As season tickets sold out in vast numbers, the stadium was upgraded to accommodate 55,000 spectators. Even the club crest was redesigned to become sleek, modern and fashionable.
Mansour honed the City group brand as proficiently as an Apple or a Starbucks and his ambition extended beyond the city limits of Manchester.
As well as owning City, the group did what any major brand would and expanded into other territories. In the USA they founded New York City FC. In Australia, they bought Melbourne Heart FC (which inevitably became Melbourne City FC).
The group also owns at least partial shares in clubs in Japan, Uruguay, Spain and UAE. The group had created a one size fits all franchising outfit all decked in light blue.
Mansour ended up with one of Europe’s greatest sides, a behemoth of financial muscle and star power. Furthermore, thanks to his overseas ambitions, he now had the makings of a footballing empire, one that spanned continents and followed the same blueprint as City.
Of course, the dramatic development of Manchester City as a football club, as well as their growing portfolio of international satellite clubs and seemingly inexhaustible finances, does raise some uncomfortable questions about the state of football today.
The idea of a club’s identity is one that fans cling to. It separates us from them.
But Manchester City’s identity has essentially been co-opted and replicated in far-flung corners of the world, colonising new cities and transforming them into a homogeneous entity.
They are no longer just a northern English club team. They are one cog of many in an international franchise operation.
The other issue is that when your wealth is for all intents and purposes unlimited, as it seems to be in the case of the Abu Dhabi investment group, the fines associated with FIFA’s Financial Fair Play system are insignificant if they are even enforced.
Finally, the idea of state-sponsored ownership of clubs is unsettling.
Paris Saint Germain is now essentially a holding of the Qatari government. And although Manchester City’s investors claim to be an independent investment group, it seems to be little more than semantics.
The association with the rulers of UAE are too close, too muddy.
It is undeniable that Manchester City is now a super club.
Even if Sheikh Mansour and his partners were to withdraw their investment in Manchester City, the club would still be a prized investment for some other billionaire given their impressive branding, excellent stadium and obvious viability as a top side.
Manchester City will likely be dominating football for many years to come.
Kevin Boyle, Pundit Arena